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A recent Chinese white paper suggests that country is showing an interest in developing space-based solar power systems, which could give the country a strategic advantage in space and on Earth. (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

National Space Strategy: proactive or reactive?


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“Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18

“…space preeminence is essential if the US is to be a great power and continue to be a great power.” – Major General James Armor, USAF (Retired)

Throughout its history, America has notoriously been reactive when it comes to its national strategy. The United States was the nation to invent the powered airplane, but was slow to realize its potential until European powers seized the opportunity. When it came to space, some historians argue that had the Soviet Union not orbited a satellite and later a cosmonaut, there would have been no Apollo program or human space program of the kind we think of when the phrase “spacepower” is bandied about. In those situations, America had the industrial might and political fortitude to see the threats at hand to their global influence as a superpower on the world stage. However, recently some events have been occurring in the space frontier that seems to indicate a lack of vision and highlights the need for a national space strategy: space based solar power (SBSP) in China.

Recently, the Chinese have committed to the development and deployment of SBSP architectures as a vital part of the nation’s “future direction”, according to a paper by three space scientists from the China Academy of Space Technology.

Many may read that last sentence and wonder, “What’s the big deal about the Chinese experimenting with SBSP?” As many in the United States government and elsewhere believe, SBSP is the stuff of science fiction; pipe dreams of space advocacy groups that aren’t found in the real world. However, since the publication of the National Security Space Office’s analysis of the security implications of SBSP, the Chinese have seen that SBSP is not necessarily a pipe dream, has economic and political merit, and is important to China in the future.

Recently, the Chinese have committed to the development and deployment of SBSP architectures in low earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) as a vital part of the nation’s “future direction”, according to a paper by three space scientists from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). This new effort demonstrates Chinese resolve toward a sustainable and long-term strategy for their nation that sees space as the vital national interest and instrument of power that it is. It enables positive advantages in several areas of global power and influence, three of which are economic power, technological prowess, and innovation. All of these enable their planned achievement of global leadership and preeminence in space.

Why this push for SBSP in China? Their global interests are increasing due to their economic growth and reach on several continents. As a result, natural resources and energy will become increasingly critical to their goals. With their growing dominance of vital space- and weapons-related resources like rare earth metals, and other natural resources such as oil, the Chinese see themselves as a leading economic power in the world. This increased economic power has helped increase their role in international financial and diplomatic institutions. Because of this increasing need for energy resources to advance their economic growth and power, the Chinese government has been exploring new options for future resources “inside earth” but acknowledge their needs might surpass the natural resources they have access to. This has prompted the Chinese government to look to space.

According to the paper by CAST, “the state has decided that power from outside the earth, such as solar power and the development of other space energy resources is to be China’s future direction.” This is not a mere statement of desire as is the case in many circles of the United States space advocacy arena; rather it is a real program that is “currently under development in China”.

Having the necessary access to space-based energy resources will enable the Chinese to “sustainably develop” and meet the “thirst for energy to water its blooming industries” that have created it as “one of the principal economies in the world. “ To achieve this goal of power and influence economically, the Chinese have developed a national strategy that explores three advantages of SBSP: sustainable economic and social development, disaster prevention and mitigation, and cultivating innovative talents through an increased space effort the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Apollo program. This would require technological innovation on a grand strategic scale.

According to the CAST paper, “The acquisition of space solar power will require development of fundamental new aerospace technologies, such as revolutionary launch approaches, ultra-thin solar arrays, on-orbit manufacture/assembly/integration (MAI), precise attitude control, in-situ resource utilization for deep space exploration and space colonial expansion.” This demonstrates that SBSP is not just one project for economic leadership of China, but part of a grand strategy of space power expansion and a desire to be the leading space power on Earth. They acknowledge this through the comparison of the Apollo project and its benefits for the United States. “In the last century, America’s leading position in science and technology worldwide was inextricably linked with technological advances associated with implementation of the Apollo program. Likewise, China’s current achievements in aerospace technology are built upon with its successive generations of satellite projects in space, China will use its capabilities in space science to assure…” the Chinese development of space development and energy in space.

While this is a long-range plan, the fact that the Chinese are proceeding with its development in conjunction with their efforts in the economic and military/human spaceflight spheres shows a resolve and foresighted strategy.

As mentioned previously, China’s desire is to be recognized as the leader in space. To do this, and to support their future economic power and influence worldwide, energy development and the applications of space resources are the way forward. Their human spaceflight program, including the recent launch of Tiangong 1 and the autonomous rendezvous and docking technologies they are developing, will enable the new technologies needed for this SBSP architecture as well as Chinese long-range plans for deep space exploration and “colonial expansion”.

This plan for space includes the following five-step plan to achieve their SBSP plans (concurrently with their space station development and other programs):

  • 2010: CAST finished their concept design
  • 2020: Finish the industrial level testing of in-orbit construction and wireless transmissions
  • 2025: Complete the first 100kW SBSP demonstration in LEO
  • 2050: The first operational level SBSP system will be deployed in GEO.

While this is a long-range plan, the fact that the Chinese are proceeding with its development in conjunction with their efforts in the economic and military/human spaceflight spheres shows a resolve and foresighted strategy that understands the need and strategic impact that space power has on the balance of power and influence in the world. Even if many in America and elsewhere believe that the United States is the undisputed leader in space exploration and development, one need only look at the America’s current space strategy to find the difference in the visions for national space leadership in the two nations. Compared with the Chinese, the United States does not have a long-range national space strategy or direction, and desperately needs one.

Leadership in space should not be assumed: it requires hard, continued work to assure its existence into the future.

What is the United States doing about this challenge to its global leadership in space and economic matters? Not much. In March 2011, the Obama Administration released its “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future”, but that document doesn’t mention SBSP at all, even as something worthy of consideration. In the National Space Policy of 2010, the Obama Administration mentions space nuclear power—as past policies have—but does not mention any effort to develop SBSP for the United States or its allies, much less the “colonial expansion” that the Chinese are advocating and planning for.

While many in the United States government see SBSP as a pipe dream, many other nations, friendly and otherwise, see our lack of initiative and vision as an opportunity to become the world leaders in space and seize its strategic effects for their countries’ economic, diplomatic, and military power worldwide. If the United States does not craft a similarly far-reaching national space strategy, it may be left in a situation where it cannot compete globally in the new markets of space resources and on-orbit energy applications. This could adversely affect US influence abroad and at home.

The National Space Society, in addition to the previously mentioned National Security Space Office report, has explored the security and economic benefits of SBSP in the last decade. Our friends in Japan and India are also exploring this potential opportunity. It’s time the US government examined the current strategic situation and proactively explored the development and deployment of SBSP as one step in our quest to push America out into the solar system for the development and “colonial expansion” of our society. Leadership in space should not be assumed: it requires hard, continued work to assure its existence into the future.


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